Large, undeveloped property pits Chapel Hill’s housing need against desire for a park

The town of Chapel Hill bought the American Legion Post 6 property on Legion Road in March 2017 and is planning what will become of the land when the Legion moves to a new home. (Tammy Grubb/tgrubb@heraldsun.com)

Competing desires drew more than 100 people to the Chapel Hill Public Library on Tuesday night to talk about the future of 36 acres on the quickly evolving eastern side of town.

While some have asked the town to let the entire Legion Road site be a community park, others urged setting aside some land for housing.

A Town Council subcommittee agreed with the latter in its report released last week. The full council will discuss the report on Dec. 7 and could vote to move ahead with more studies, plans and hearings.

The land at 1714 Legion Road is surrounded by mostly one-story homes and businesses, but it’s just a few blocks from the busy traffic on Franklin Street and Fordham Boulevard. Across the street and along the skyline, apartment buildings up to 90 feet tall peer over the trees, newer additions allowed by the town’s fast-track development approval process in the Blue Hill District.

An earlier council had considered selling off part of the former American Legion Post land to a developer and using the proceeds to build a park, but the Legion Property Committee rejected that idea in its Nov. 22 report. Instead, the report recommends eight to nine acres for housing, and the rest for a park.

On Tuesday night, a few people said they were disappointed the town didn’t start the meeting with a formal presentation. Instead, handouts were available at the door, and charts and maps were stationed around the room, with staff available to answer questions.

The standing-room-only crowd then spent more than an hour listening as residents and housing advocates shared their thoughts. Some brought their own ideas, including one woman who asked the town to create a farm where people could live and, alongside their neighbors, grow their own food.

Combining parks, pond repairs

The plan on the table now would pair 27 acres on Legion Road, including 8.6 acres of woods surrounding a stream, with the town’s 12-acre Ephesus Park, which backs up to the Legion site.

Ephesus Park shares playground equipment and athletic fields with Ephesus Elementary School and also offers tennis and pickleball, as well as a few forest trails. The new Legion Park could have cultural arts programs and active and passive recreation, the report said.

One of the biggest challenges could be deciding what to do with the 3-acre fishing pond near Legion Road that already needs repairs to its failing dam, Mayor Pam Hemminger told The News & Observer by phone Tuesday.

The town could repair the dam and restore a similar size or smaller pond, but that could make it more challenging to build housing along Legion Road, she said. The other option is draining and filling the pond to create a larger building area. The land would stay undisturbed for about nine months while the water on site returns to its natural state.

Either option could cost the town roughly $500,000, Hemminger told The N&O, noting she’s “happier with this recommendation” for both a park and housing on the site.

“It meets several town goals, and it will also clear up, we’re not going to take down forest, we’re not going over near the dance center where people have been doing the invasive species removal,” she said, referring to volunteers who now show up to manage the land.

Park plans, but no money to build

The town almost didn’t buy the property in 2015, when American Legion Post 6 put it on the market and a private developer offered a plan for market-rate apartments.

But in 2016, after voters seated a new mayor and council members, the town reversed its decision, paying $7.9 million in cash and debt financing that had been approved by voters for other parks projects.

The pandemic and a lack of money to develop the land kept the issue on the back burner until this year, when five council members asked the town to come up with a plan.

The town still doesn’t have money to build park amenities, but over 1,000 residents, including some who fished in the pond and hiked the trails for decades, have galvanized behind the idea of a large, community park serving the northeastern portion of town. The nearest such park is now two miles away on South Estes Drive.

Sara Hanneman, who lives behind the Legion property, said she wasn’t aware the land was open to the public until she noticed people walking their dogs there. She now walks her dog, too, and volunteers with other neighbors to help remove invasive plants.

“It’s been really nice to have an open space that I can walk to. I don’t have to drive. I don’t have to ride my bike. It’s easily accessible, and I think it’s a shame that my neighbors might not even know about this park, or open space,” she said.

A neighbor, Stephanie Greenberg, said she takes her disabled father to the Legion property, where she can watch as his “face and body relax when he sits in his wheelchair and gazes out at that pond.”

While she supports affordable housing, Greenberg said, “living is not just a roof over your head.”

“Living is creating a space where people can join together, who can enjoy nature together, without the stress of developer after developer, of building after building, not even a sidewalk to reach it. I’m telling you it is a tragedy to let this land go,” she said.

Housing low income, people with disabilities

It doesn’t have to be one or the other, countered housing advocates, including several parents of adult children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

PACID — Parent Advocates for Adult Children with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities — organized around the issue of housing several years ago, the group’s chairwoman, Carol Conway, said. But Chapel Hill’s lack of options continues to leave many adult children with no choice but to stay at home with their aging parents, she and others said.

“Our families’ adult children with IDD ... get supplemental Social Security Income that is worth about $750 a month, and that’s to (pay) for their housing, food, clothing — they need very, very low income affordable housing,” she said.

Housing is also scarce for low-income families, who increasingly find themselves on the street or commuting long distances.

Chinita Howard, a Community Empowerment Fund advocate who experienced homelessness when her monthly rent tripled, said it’s hard to think about park needs when people don’t have a place to sleep.

“I’m looking at the things that we’ve done in the past — bonds that we’ve approved, the citizens of this town, $5 million, then $10 million, and the town says, we need more land,” Howard said. “We have the land now. ... We have engineering and creative, intelligent people making decisions for our citizens, and we’re hoping that they take all of these considerations and include them all.”

A report earlier this year noted that even with additional town financial support, the community needs more than 3,800 affordable housing units to meet the need among individuals and families earning less than $50,000 a year.

Several nonprofit groups have expressed interest in working with the town to build housing on the site, including HOPE NC (Housing Options for People with Exceptionalities), which also advocates for housing people with disabilities.

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